Would you press the e-mail panic button?

Last night I was having a long conversation with +Laura Dochtermann, a good friend of mine who happens to work in the publishing industry. We were talking about the evolution of text media and the slow but unavoidable death of print as we currently know it.

It is blatantly clear that the print medium is suffering. With the advent of the e-reader, iPad, Kindle and all of its various cousins, people are finding new ways to consume novels and periodicals. Along with that departure from paper is our departure from physical correspondence.

The drop in mail volume has become such a problem that the United States Postal Service is considering the end of Saturday delivery. It comes as no surprise though as more and more of us gravitate towards e-mail as our preferred the method of communication.

When e-mail was first conceived it was great. It allowed you to instantly connect with people thousands of miles away and transformed the way that we conduct research and business. Now you can share file attachments, appointments, copies of contracts and more.

As e-mail continued to evolve and it became more commonplace in the office, people started to rely less and less on other communication methods such as the telephone, courier service and fax machine. Now it seems as though an increasing majority of our communications at work are done over e-mail.

Of course we have message boards, instant messaging, social media and other ways of connecting online, but when it comes down to getting things done, e-mail is the communication vehicle of choice.

If we have come so far to adopt e-mail as our primary form of communication, why is it such a disaster? Talking to my friend last night, I learned that she had some 1,300 odd unread messages in her inbox. Undoubtedly, most of them were Spam, unsolicited messages and unactionable communications. However, in between those superfluous messages may have been a handful that needed thoughtful consideration.

How can we sort through all of the junk to find what is really important? How do we task ourselves with organizing an onslaught of communications when we aren’t sure what we should keep and what we should throw away?

I remember seeing a table once that showed how long you should hold on to certain documents, some for seven years, some for three and some for just as little as twelve months. It’s easy to discard things like junk mail, but why do we have to do that ourselves? Shouldn’t time-sensitive correspondence disappear once it is no longer relevant?

Each episode of Mission Impossible began with a self-destructing message, so why don’t advertisements and newsletters do the same once their newest version arrives?

Leaving your inbox untouched for a weekend or even just one day can present a huge problem when you return to sort out the mess.

Sure, you can try different apps and “features” which promise to unclutter your barrage of messages and bring the cream to the top, but how can you be sure you’re not missing something? What do you do with all of the junk on the bottom? Do you let it grow like a digital version of Hoarders: Buried Alive?

Clearly a problem of this magnitude requires immediate and drastic action. What can be done about these hundreds and thousands of messages that haunt you each time your visit your inbox? What can you do?

CAUTION: I assume absolutely NO liability for what happens if you consider the following approach. Please do not exercise this approach with your work e-mail unless you have backed up all necessary communications and are comfortable doing so.

Image Courtesy star5112 under Creative Commons 2.0

Okay, if you’re still with me, here’s what I suggest: put an end to it. No, don’t throw your computer out the window. Don’t quit your job and don’t unplug yourself from the digital world. Get rid of the mess in your inbox for good. Here’s how:

Let your family, friends, business associates and anyone else important know that you are getting ready to waive the white flag and declare enough is enough with the mountains of digital messages. After that, delete your messages. All of them. Each and every one. Get rid of the folders, get rid of the archives, get rid of it all. If it was important, you would have saved it or backed it up already. If you hadn’t, then you probably need to address a bigger issue.

Now that you have an empty inbox, as you start to get junk you don’t need, unsubscribe before you delete. Don’t say, “oh I ‘ll do it next time” or “that’s too hard.” Just unsubscribe. Recent laws have made it incredibly easy to unsubscribe to newsletters and other advertisements through e-mail.

As you unsubscribe and notice your incoming mail volume decline, continue to manage the messages as they come in. If it’s a note about a fun event you’d like to attend, quickly discuss with your family whether or not you would like to go, then take action on the message.

As you start to work through your messages on a daily basis and continue to eradicate all of the things you didn’t need, you will start to notice yourself living a more peaceful existence.

Now of course, you’re thinking, “delete ALL of my e-mail? You must be crazy?” Well, drastic times call for drastic measures my friend.

I promise you that by getting rid of all of these forgotten commitments, irrelevant conversations and companies pleas to get you to buy things you don’t need, you will find yourself in a much happier place.

The real question though is would you do it?

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